My first relationship with a turtle dates back to the dodgy 80s, when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles emerged from the sewers and had everyone eating more pizza, buying cheap Chinese-made ninja weapons and saying stupid things like “cowabunga, dude”. In high school, I became aware of the actual artists after whom the Ninja Turtles were named, and instantly I fell in love with the work of Michelangelo, partly forgetting my half-shell hero.
At the age of 15, I was privileged enough to be taken to Rome, in celebration of our family’s Catholic roots. I cried in front of La Pietà in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. No textbook or art teacher can really do that sculpture justice. I stood beneath the Sistine Chapel ceiling, I saw the actual work of that great artist himself, and suddenly the school lessons, the projects, and the art essays had real value. I was moved, because the experience was personal, and the concept no longer abstract.
Years on, and I can sit back and watch the likes of my 13-year-old daughter trying to connect her classroom lessons with real life. Some concepts resonate, and some remain abstract.
During the interminably long winter holidays, the cries of “I’m bored” became insufferable, and I whisked my daughter Caro and niece Tessa off to the Two Oceans Aquarium. I have the incredible privilege of being a consultant to the Aquarium, and therefore have some access to the behind-the-scenes activity.
In the quarantine area of the Aquarium are 17 rescued loggerhead turtles, all of them hatchlings that got lost in the cold water of our coast. They are patiently awaiting re-release into the warmer waters of Durban.
Caro and Tessa were handed some mushy raw prawns, and told to feed these greedy little guys. Their faces (the children, not the turtles) were a sight to behold. Better than mall hopping, better than Facebook, better than endless hours on the phone to friends or downloading the latest iTunes offering, they were being educated, and they didn’t even know it!
After the little turtles, they were allowed to feed Wasabi, a 36kg green turtle with an arthritic flipper. Wasabi has since been relocated to uShaka Marine World in Durban, where she will live out her days in the cosy comfort of warmer waters. The girls fed Wasabi a mixture of squid and mussels. I thought they would be squeamish, but the experience appeared to override their sense of ick!
At home again, and they were back on Facebook and Twitter. But not to discuss the antics of Justin Bieber, or to bemoan their boredom. They let their friends know all about sea turtles.
They told their friends that all seven sea turtle species are facing extinction; they let them know what they eat and what they look like; they explained that turtles do well in warmer water, and not so well in cold water. They returned to school and shared the experience with their classmates, and their teachers. They were educating, and they didn’t even know it!
Educational experiences are so much more profound than their textbook alternatives. When it’s personal, no longer abstract, it leaves an imprint and is far more likely to be shared with others, increasing the reach of the lesson taught.
That’s why the Two Oceans Aquarium Adopt-a-School programme is such a success. Fully reliant on corporate funding, this programme brings children from underprivileged schools to the Aquarium for a day of educational fun. Fully equipped classrooms complete with mini-aquariums on each desk bring the children up close and personal with kelp, starfish, fish and sometimes even the hand-reared African Penguin, Zuki, a wonderful ambassador for her endangered species.
There is a study that says that 80% of Cape Town’s children have never seen the ocean. And those who have won’t necessarily understand the importance or relevance of the marine life within.
I’m pleased to have extended my circle of turtle friends beyond Michelangelo the Ninja Turtle to the likes of Wasabi and the 17 hatchlings currently at the Aquarium. I’m equally thrilled that my children will grow up knowing that turtles live in warm waters, not sewers, and that they don’t eat pizza.
And I hope that, in time, a lot more than 20% of Cape Town’s children will have experienced the ocean in a real and meaningful way. If you or your company want to sponsor a group of learners and help to inspire our youth to understand and protect our marine legacy, go to the Two Oceans Aquarium and find out about their Adopt-a-School programme – the Aquarium is currently running a special offer that’s valid until end-July.